From pencils and pens to augmented reality
Digital developments add new products, services for builders
A virtual-reality room, says Garret Meierbachtol at Shive-Hattery, “enables the architect to see that it looks the way they want it to look and not just function the way they want it to function.” (Shive-Hattery)
For printing companies in the Corridor, as in so many other industries, it was a matter of keeping up with the significant changes brought by the digital technology — or get left behind.
Take the growing use of 3D printing, for example.
For many years after its founding in 1952 as Standard Blueprint of Iowa, Rapids Reproductions, for example, specialized in copying architectural and engineering blueprints.
The Cedar Rapids company’s culture of accepting new technology began in 1984 when it became a computer-aided design system dealer, adding color copying services within a short period of time.
“Before computer-aided drafting, we sold the tables, pencils and pens to do drawings by hand,” said Ron Wasik, president of Rapids Reproductions. “… When computer-aided drafting came in, there were plotters and we sold those along with the necessary supplies.
“When everything started to go digital, we created a plan room where anyone needing blueprints can log in and print the plans themselves.”
Wasik said the creation of the plan room was followed fairly soon, in 2013, with the company moving into 3D plastic printing.
“The machines were initially very large and very expensive,” he recalled. “We had another firm in a different part of the country, similar to ours, telling us that they had started selling 3D printers. We looked into it and started out with the same company they were representing.
“They were big machines that sold for $50,000 to $80,000. We bought two different types of 3D printers.
“We still use one of them today and we sold off the other machine when it became obsolete.”
‘As Strong As Aluminum’
A 3D printer lays down successive layers of material until an object is created. Each of the layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.
A computer file provides the physical dimensions of the object. In many cases, creating a complex object with conventional manufacturing methods would use more material, be more time consuming and — in some cases — be impossible.
“The first 3D printing machines were primarily used to create prototypes.” Wasik said.
“They did a good job and they did finely detailed parts, but they were not real strong. They also became very brittle over time.”
Rapids Reproductions turned to another manufacturer, Markforged of Watertown, Mass., for new 3D printing machines.
After purchasing and using Markforged printers, it became a dealer selling, repairing and servicing 3D printers.
“The new 3D printers have two print heads,” Wasik said. “One head lays down a layer of plastic material and the other head lays down a layer of continuous fiber that can reinforce it.
“The fibers are Fiberglas, carbon fiber, high-temperature Fiberglas and Kevlar. You can make a plastic part as strong as aluminum.
“We have started to do end-use parts because of the strength of the material. We have printed thousands of parts for one manufacturer and hundreds for others.”
Within the past six months, Rapids Reproductions has begun offering 3D metal printing.
“By printing metal powder bound in a plastic binder, we have eliminated the safety risks associated with traditional metal 3D printing,” Wasik said. “It goes through a hot metal extruder and builds what is called a ‘green part.’”
That part is washed, he explained, to dissolve some of the plastic binder and create a porous material.
“The final step involves baking it in a sintering oven, which removes the rest of the plastic binder,” he said.
While 3D metal and plastic printing are some of the more recent additions to the company’s products and services, it has continued to expand its capabilities in printing large-format color images of all types, including signs and prints on canvas and other materials.
Wasik said the diversification has enabled the company to offset a decline in traditional printing of blueprints and engineering documents.
Technology also has enabled the company to offer its products and services to clients beyond its six locations — Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Clive, Davenport, Dubuque and Iowa City.
Walking Through A Non-Existent Building
The digital revolution that has made 3D metal and plastic printing a reality also is transforming the way many of Rapids Reproductions’ clients and partners are doing business.
Shive-Hattery, a Cedar Rapids architecture and engineering firm, has been involved in a transition from traditional blueprints to iPad tablet computers at construction sites.
Garret Meierbachtol, building information modeling manager, said architects are no longer drawing a line to show a wall on a blueprint.
“We are taking the digital pieces of a building apart and putting them together to construct the building,” Meierbachtol said. “You have a geometric representation of things, like a door or a light, and that allows us to include all the information about that element such as the size, manufacturer, model number, supplier and other details.
“When you make any change to that element, it pushes the information out to every place where that the element existed.”
Creating a digital model of a building, rather than a drawing, enabled Shive-Hattery to use virtual reality visualization software to provide architects the ability to “walk through” a building before construction begins.
“Something can look good on paper, but you don’t have the human intuitive feel until you immerse yourself in that environment,” Meierbachtol said.
“It enables the architect to see that it looks the way they want it to look and not just function the way they want it to function.
“You can take that virtual-realty visualization and plug the client into it, offering them a tour of their building before anything is constructed. They can ask for changes without creating construction delays and additional costs.”
Augmented reality will be the next step, Meierbachtol believes, enabling the architect and the client to see where to place a building in a real-world environment.
Plus, he said, “I think we will see a lot more modular construction where parts of a building are preconstructed and they are assembled on the site.”
3D-printed houses have been constructed — in Texas, Russia, Shanghai, Dubai. And after that? Large-scale buildings.
“We also may see 3D-printed buildings in the not-so-distant future,” Meierbachtol said.